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THE DOUBLE STANDARD OF AGING 
By Susan Sontag 


( The Saturday Review, September 23, 1972, pp. 29-38 ) 


THE DOUBLE STANDARD OF AGING 


“How old are you?” The person asking the question is 
anybody. The respondent is a woman, a woman “of a certain 
age,” as the French say discreetly. That age might be 
anywhere from her early twenties to her late fifties. If the 
question is impersonal—routine information requested when 
she applies for a driver’s license, a credit card, a passport— 
she will probably force herself to answer truthfully. Filling out 
a marriage license application, if her future husband is even 
Slightly her junior, she may long to subtract a few years; 
probably she won’t. Competing for a job, her chances often 
partly depend on being the “right age,” and if hers isn’t 
right, she will lie if she thinks she can get away with it. 
Making her first visit to a new doctor, perhaps feeling 
particularly vulnerable at the moment she’s asked, she will 
probably hurry through the correct answer. But if the 
question is only what people call personal—if she’s asked by 
a new friend, a casual acquaintance, a neighbor’s child, a 
coworker in an office, store, factory—her response is harder 
to predict. She may side-step the question with a joke or 
refuse it with playful indignation.” Don’t you know you're 
not supposed to ask a woman her age?” Or, hesitating a 
moment, embarrassed but defiant, she may tell the truth. 
Or she may lie. But neither truth, evasion, nor lie relieves 
the unpleasantness of that question. For a woman to be 
obliged to state her age, after “a certain age,” is always a 
miniature ordeal. 


If the question comes from a woman, she will feel less 
threatened than if it comes from a man. Other women are, 
after all, comrades in sharing the same _ potential for 
humiliation. She will be less arch, less coy. But she probably 
still dislikes answering and may not tell the truth. 


Bureaucratic formalities excepted, whoever asks a woman 
this question—after “a certain age”—is ignoring a taboo and 
possibly being impolite or downright hostile. Almost 
everyone acknowledges that once she passes an age that 
is, actually, quite young, a woman’s exact age ceases to be 
a legitimate target of curiosity. After childhood the year of a 
woman ’s birth becomes her secret, her private property. It is 
something of a dirty secret. To answer truthfully is always 
indiscreet. The discomfort a woman feels each time she tells 
her age is quite independent of the anxious awareness of 
human mortality that everyone has, from time to time. 
There is a normal sense in which nobody, men and women 
alike, relishes growing older. After thirty-five any mention of 
one’s age carries with it the reminder that one is probably 
closer to the end of one’s life than to the beginning. There is 
nothing unreasonable in that anxiety. Nor is there any 
abnormality in the anguish and anger that people who are 
really old, in their seventies and eighties, feel about the 
implacable waning of their powers, physical and mental. 
Advanced age is undeniably a trial, however stoically it may 
be endured. It is a shipwreck, no matter with what courage 
elderly people insist on continuing the voyage. But the 
objective, sacred pain of old age is of another order than the 
Subjective, profane pain of aging. Old age is a genuine 
ordeal, one that men and women undergo in a similar way. 
Growing older is mainly an ordeal of the imagination—a 
moral disease, a social pathology-“*intrinsic to which is the 
fact that it afflicts women much more than men. It is 
particularly women who- experience growing older 
(everything that comes before one is actually old) with such 
distaste and even shame. 


The emotional privileges this society confers upon youth stir 
up some anxiety about getting older in everybody. All 
modern urbanized societies—unlike tribal, rural societies— 
condescend to the values of maturity and heap honors on 


the joys of youth. This revaluation of the life cycle in favor of 
the young brilliantly serves a secular society whose idols are 
ever-increasing industrial productivity and the unlimited 
cannibalization of nature. Such a society must create a new 
sense of the rhythms of life in order to incite people to buy 
more, to consume and throw away faster. People let the 
direct awareness they have of their needs, of what really 
gives them pleasure, be overruled by commercialized 
images of happiness and personal well-being; and, in this 
imagery designed to stimulate ever more avid levels of 
consumption, the most popular metaphor for happiness is 
“youth.” (| would insist that it is a metaphor, not a literal 
description. Youth is a metaphor for energy, restless 
mobility, appetite: for the state of “wanting.”) This equating 
of well-being with youth makes everyone naggingly aware of 
exact age—one’s own and that of other people. In primitive 
and premodern societies people attach much _ less 
importance to dates. When lives are divided into long 
periods vdth stable responsibilities and steady ideals (and 
hypocrisies), the exact number of years someone has lived 
becomes a trivial fact; there is hardly any reason to 
mention, even to know, the year in which one was born. 
Most people in nonindustrial societies are not sure exactly 
how old they are. People in industrial societies are haunted 
by numbers. They take an almost obsessional interest in 
keeping the score card of aging, convinced that anything 
above a low total is some kind of bad news. In an era in 
which people actually live longer and longer, what now 
amounts to the latter two-thirds of everyone’s life is 
shadowed by a poignant apprehension of unremitting loss. 


The prestige of youth afflicts everyone in this society to 
some degree. Men, too, are prone to periodic bouts of 
depression about aging—for instance, when feeling insecure 
or unfulfilled or insufficiently rewarded in their jobs. But men 
rarely panic about aging in the way women often do. 


Getting older is less profoundly wounding for a man, for in 
addition to the propaganda for youth that puts both men 
and women on the defensive as they age, there is a double 
standard about aging that denounces women with special 
severity. Society is much more permissive about aging in 
men, as it is more tolerant of the sexual infidelities of 
husbands. Men are “allowed” to age, without penalty, in 
several ways that women are not. This society offers even 
fewer rewards for aging to women than it does to men. 


Being physically attractive counts much more in a woman’s 
life than in a man’s, but beauty, identified, as it is for 
women, with youthfulness, does not stand up well to age. 
Exceptional mental powers can increase with age, but 
women are rarely encouraged to develop their minds above 
dilettante standards. Because the wisdom considered the 
special province of women is “eternal,” an age-old, intuitive 
knowledge about the emotions to which a repertoire of 
facts, worldly experience, and the methods of rational 
analysis have nothing to contribute, living a long time does 
not promise women an increase in wisdom either. The 
private skills expected of women are exercised early and, 
with the exception of a talent for making love, are not the 
kind that enlarge with experience. “Masculinity” is identified 
with competence, autonomy, self-control— qualities which 
the disappearance of youth does not threaten. Competence 
in most of the activities expected from men, physical sports 
excepted, increases with age. “Femininity” is identified with 
incompetence, helplessness, passivity, noncompetitiveness, 
being nice. Age does not improve these qualities. 


Middle-class men feel diminished by aging, even while still 
young, if they have not yet shown distinction in their careers 
or made a lot of money. (And any tendencies they have 
toward hypochondria will get worse in middle age, focusing 
with particular nervousness on the specter of heart attacks 


and the loss of virility.) Their aging crisis is linked to that 
terrible pressure on men to be “successful” that precisely 
defines their membership in the middle class. Women rarely 
feel anxious about their age because they haven't 
succeeded at something. The work that women do outside 
the home rarely counts as a form of achievement, only as a 
way of earning money; most employment available to 
women mainly exploits the training they have been 
receiving since early childhood to be servile, to be both 
Supportive and parasitical, to be unadventurous. They can 
have menial, low-skilled jobs in light industries, which offer 
as feeble a criterion of success as housekeeping. They can 
be secretaries, clerks, sales personnel, maids, research 
assistants, waitresses, social workers, prostitutes, nurses, 
teachers, telephone operators— public transcriptions of the 
servicing and nurturing roles that women have in family life. 
Women fill very few executive posts, are rarely found 
Suitable for large corporate or political responsibilities, and 
form only a tiny contingent in the liberal professions (apart 
from teaching). They are virtually barred from jobs that 
involve an expert, intimate relation with machines or an 
aggressive use of the body, or that carry any physical risk or 
sense of adventure. The jobs this society deems appropriate 
to women are auxiliary, “calm” activities that do not 
compete with, but aid, what men do. Besides being less well 
paid, most work women do has a lower ceiling of 
advancement and gives meager outlet to normal wishes to 
be powerful. All outstanding work by women in this society 
is voluntary; most women are too inhibited by the social 
disapproval attached to their being ambitious and 
aggressive. Inevitably, women are exempted from the 
dreary panic of middle-aged men whose “achievements” 
seem paltry, who feel stuck on the job ladder or fear being 
pushed off it by someone younger. But they are also denied 
most of the real satisfactions that men derive from work— 
satisfactions that often do increase with age. 


The double standard about aging shows up most brutally in 
the conventions of sexual feeling, which presuppose a 
disparity between men and women that operates 
permanently to women’s disadvantage. In the accepted 
course of events a woman anywhere from her late teens 
through her middle twenties can expect to attract a man 
more or less her own age. (Ideally, he should be at least 
Slightly older.) They marry and raise a family. But if her 
husband starts an affair after some years of marriage, he 
customarily does so with a woman much younger than his 
wife. Suppose, when both husband and wife are already in 
their late forties or early fifties, they divorce. The husband 
has an excellent chance of getting married again, probably 
to a younger woman. His ex-wife finds it difficult to remarry. 
Attracting a second husband younger than herself is 
improbable; even to find someone her own age she has to 
be lucky, and she will probably have to settle for a man 
considerably older than herself, in his sixties or seventies. 
Women become sexually ineligible much earlier than men 
do. A man, even an ugly man, can remain eligible well into 
old age. He is an acceptable mate for a young, attractive 
woman. Women, even good-looking women, become 
ineligible (except as partners of very old men) at a much 
younger age. 


Thus, for most women, aging means a humiliating process 
of gradual sexual disqualification. Since women_= are 
considered maximally eligible in early youth, after which 
their sexual value drops steadily, even young women feel 
themselves in a desperate race against the calendar. They 
are old as soon as they are no longer very young. In late 
adolescense some girls are already worrying about getting 
married. Boys and young men have little reason to 
anticipate trouble because of aging. What makes men 
desirable to women is by no means tied to youth. On the 
contrary, getting older tends (for several decades) to 


Operate in men’s favor, since their value as lovers and 
husbands is set more by what they do than how they look. 
Many men have more success romantically at forty than 
they did at twenty or twenty-five; fame, money, and, above 
all, power are sexually enhancing. (A woman who has won 
power in a competitive profession or business career is 
considered less, rather than more, desirable. Most men 
confess themselves intimidated or turned off sexually by 
such a woman, obviously because she is harder to treat as 
just a sexual “object.”) As they age, men may start feeling 
anxious about actual sexual performance, worrying about a 
loss of sexual vigor or even impotence, but their sexual 
eligibility is not abridged simply by getting older. Men stay 
sexually possible as long as they can make love. Women are 
at a disadvantage because their sexual candidacy depends 
on meeting certain much stricter “conditions” related to 
looks and age. 


Since women are imagined to have much more limited 
sexual lives than men do, a woman who has never married 
is pitied. She was not found acceptable, and it is assumed 
that her life continues to confirm her unacceptability. Her 
presumed lack of sexual opportunity is embarrassing. A man 
who remains a bachelor is judged much less crudely. It is 
assumed that he, at any age, still has a sexual life—or the 
chance of one. For men there is no destiny equivalent to the 
humiliating condition of being an old maid, a spinster. “Mr.,” 
a cover from infancy to senility, precisely exempts men from 
the stigma that attaches to any woman, no longer young, 
who is still “Miss.” (That women are divided into “Miss” and 
“Mrs.,” which calls unrelenting attention to the situation of 
each woman with respect to marriage, reflects the belief 
that being single or married is much more decisive for a 
woman than it is for a man.) 


For a woman who is no longer very young, there is certainly 
some relief when she has finally been able to marry. 
Marriage soothes the sharpest pain she feels about the 
passing years. But her anxiety never subsides completely, 
for she knows that should she re-enter the sexual market at 
a later date—because of divorce, or the death of her 
husband, or the need for erotic adventure—she must do so 
under a handicap far greater than any man of her age 
(whatever her age may be) and regardless of how good- 
looking she is. Her achievements, if she has a career, are no 
asset. The calendar is the final arbiter. 


To be sure, the calendar is subject to some variations from 
country to country. In Spain, Portugal, and the Latin 
American countries, the age at which most women are ruled 
physically undesirable comes earlier than in the United 
States. In France it is somewhat later. French conventions of 
sexual feeling make a quasi-official place for the woman 
between thirty-five and forty-five. Her role is to initiate an 
inexperienced or timid young man, after which she is, of 
course, replaced by a young girl. (Colette’s novella Cheri is 
the best-known account in fiction of such a love affair; 
biographies of Balzac relate a well-documented example 
from real life.) This sexual myth does make turning forty 
somewhat easier for French women. But there is no 
difference in any of these countries in the basic attitudes 
that disqualify women sexually much earlier than men. 


Aging also varies according to social class. Poor people look 
old much earlier in their lives than do rich people. But 
anxiety about aging is certainly more common, and more 
acute, among middle-class and rich women than among 
working-class women. Economically disadvantaged women 
in this society are more fatalistic about aging; they can’t 
afford to fight the cosmetic battle as long or as tenaciously. 
Indeed, nothing so clearly indicates the fictional nature of 


this crisis than the fact that women who keep their youthful 
appearance the longest—women who lead unstrenuous, 
physically sheltered lives, who eat balanced meals, who can 
afford good medical care, who have few or no children—are 
those who feel the defeat of age most keenly. Aging is much 
more a social judgment than a biological eventuality. Far 
more extensive than the hard sense of loss suffered during 
menopause (which, with increased longevity, tends to arrive 
later and later) is the depression about aging, which may 
not be set off by any real event in a woman’s life, but is a 
recurrent state of “possession” of her imagination, ordained 
by society—that is, ordained by the way this society limits 
how women feel free to imagine themselves. 


There is a model account of the aging crisis in Richard 
Strauss’s sentimental-ironic opera Der Rosenkavalier, whose 
heroine is a wealthy and glamorous married woman who 
decides to renounce romance. After a night with her adoring 
young lover, the Marschallin has a sudden, unexpected 
confrontation with herself. It is toward the end of Act |; 
Octavian has just left. Alone in her bedroom she sits at her 
dressing table, as she does every morning. It is the daily 
ritual of self-appraisal practiced by every woman. She looks 
at herself and, appalled, begins to weep. Her youth is over. 
Note that the Marschallin does not discover, looking in the 
mirror, that she is ugly. She is as beautiful as ever. The 
Marschallin’s discovery is moral—that is, it is a discovery of 
her imagination; it is nothing she actually sees. 
Nevertheless, her discovery is no less devastating. Bravely, 
she makes her painful, gallant decision. She will arrange for 
her beloved Octavian to fall in love with a girl his own age. 
She must be realistic. She is no longer eligible. She is now 
“the old Marschallin.” 


Strauss wrote the opera in 1910. Contemporary opera-goers 
are rathe r shocked when they discover that the libretto 


indicates that the Marschallin is all of thirty-four years old; 
today the role is generally sung by a soprano well into her 
forties or in her fifties. Acted by an attractive singer of 
thirty-four, the Marschallin’s sorrow would seem merely 
neurotic, or even ridiculous. Few women today think of 
themselves as old, wholly disqualified from romance, at 
thirty-four. The age of retirement has moved up, in line with 
the sharp rise in life expectancy for everybody in the last 
few generations. The form in which women experience their 
lives remains unchanged. A moment approaches inexorably 
when they must resign themselves to being “too old.” And 
that moment is invariably—objectively—premature. 


In earlier generations the renunciation came even sooner. 
Fifty years ago a woman of forty was not just aging but old, 
finished. No struggle was even possible. Today, the 
Surrender to aging no longer has a fixed date. The aging 
crisis (| am speaking only of women in affluent countries) 
starts earlier but lasts longer; it is diffused over most of a 
woman ’s life. A woman hardly has to be anything like what 
would reasonably be considered old to worry about her age, 
to start lying (or being tempted to lie). The crises can come 
at any time. Their schedule depends on a blend of personal 
(“neurotic”) vulnerability and the swing of social mores. 
Some women don’t have their first crisis until thirty. No one 
escapes a sickening shock upon turning forty. Each birthday, 
but especially those ushering in a new decade— for round 
numbers have a special authority—sounds a new defeat. 
There is almost as much pain in the anticipation as in the 
reality. Twenty-nine has become a queasy age ever since the 
official end of youth crept forward, about a generation ago, 
to thirty. Being thirty-nine is also hard; a whole year in which 
to meditate in glum astonishment that one stands on the 
threshold of middle age. The frontiers are arbitrary, but not 
any less vivid for that. Although a woman on her fortieth 
birthday is hardly different from what she was when she was 


still thirty-nine, the day seems like a turning point. But long 
before actually becoming a woman of forty, she has been 
steeling herself against the depression she will feel. One of 
the greatest tragedies of each woman’s life is simply getting 
older; it is certainly the longest tragedy. 


Aging is a movable doom. It is a crisis that never exhausts 
itself, because the anxiety is never really used up. Being a 
crisis of the imagination rather than of “real life,” it has the 
habit of repeating itself again and again. The territory of 
aging (aS opposed to actual old age) has no fixed 
boundaries. Up to a point it can be defined as one wants. 
Entering each decade—after the initial shock is absorbed— 
an endearing, desperate impulse of survival helps many 
women to stretch the boundaries to the decade following. In 
late adolescence thirty seems the end of life. At thirty, one 
pushes the sentence forward to forty. At forty, one still gives 
oneself ten more years. | remember my closest friend in 
college sobbing on the day she turned twenty-one. “The 
best part of my life is over. I’m not young any more.” She 
was a senior, nearing graduation. | was a _ precocious 
freshman, just sixteen. Mystified, | tried lamely to comfort 
her, saying that | didn’t think twenty-one was so old. 
Actually, | didn’t understand at all what could be 
demoralizing about turning twenty-one. To me, it meant only 
something good: being in charge of oneself, being free. At 
sixteen, | was too young to have noticed, and become 
confused by, the peculiarly loose, ambivalent way in which 
this society demands that one stop thinking of oneself as a 
girl and start thinking of oneself as a woman. (In America 
that demand can now be put off to the age of thirty, even 
beyond.) But even if | thought her distress was absurd, | 
must have been aware that it would not simply be absurd 
but quite unthinkable in a boy turning twenty-one. Only 
women worry about age with that degree of inanity and 
pathos. And, of course, as with all crises that are inauthentic 


and therefore repeat themselves compulsively (because the 
danger is largely fictive, a poison in the imagination), this 
friend of mine went on having the same crisis over and 
over, each time as if for the first time. 


| also came to her thirtieth birthday party. A veteran of 
many love affairs, she had spent most of her twenties living 
abroad and had just returned to the United States. She had 
been good-looking when | first knew her; now she was 
beautiful. | teased her about the tears she had shed over 
being twenty-one. She laughed and claimed not to 
remember. But thirty, she said ruefully, that really is the 
end. Soon after, she married. My friend is now forty-four. 
While no longer what people call beautiful, she is striking- 
looking, charming, and vital. She teaches elementary 
school; her husband, who is twenty years older than she, is 
a part-time merchant seaman. They have one child, now 
nine years old. Sometimes, when her husband is away, she 
takes a lover. She told me recently that forty was the most 
upsetting birthday of all (1 wasn’t at that one), and although 
She has only a few years left, she means to enjoy them 
while they last. She has become one of those women who 
seize every excuse offered in any conversation for 
mentioning how old they really are, in a spirit of bravado 
compounded with self-pity that is not too different from the 
mood of women who regularly lie about their age. But she is 
actually fretting much less about aging than she was two 
decades ago. Having a child, and having one rather late, 
past the age of thirty, has certainly helped to reconcile her 
to her age. At fifty, | suspect, she wiU be ever more valiantly 
postponing the age of resignation. 


My friend is one of the more fortunate, sturdier casualties of 
the aging crisis. Most women are not as spirited, nor as 
innocently comic in their suffering. But almost all women 
endure some version of this suffering: A recurrent seizure of 


the imagination that usually begins quite young, in which 
they project themselves into a calculation of loss. The rules 
of this society are cruel to women. Brought up to be never 
fully adult, women are deemed obsolete earlier than men. In 
fact, most women don’t become relatively free and 
expressive sexually until their thirties. (Women mature 
sexually this late, certainly much later than men, not for 
innate biological reasons but because this culture retards 
women. Denied most outlets for sexual energy permitted to 
men, it takes many women that long to wear out some of 
their inhibitions.) The time at which they start being 
disqualified as sexually attractive persons is just when they 
have grown up sexually. The double standard about aging 
cheats women of those years, between thirty-five and fifty, 
likely to be the best of their sexual life. 


That women expect to be flattered often by men, and the 
extent to which their self-confidence depends on this 
flattery, reflects how deeply women are _ psychologically 
weakened by this double standard. Added on to the 
pressure felt by everybody in this society to look young as 
long as possible are the values of “femininity,” which 
specifically identify sexual attractiveness in women with 
youth. The desire to be the “right age” has a special 
urgency for a woman it never has for a man. A much greater 
part of her self-esteem and pleasure in life is threatened 
when she ceases to be young. Most men experience getting 
older with regret, apprehension. But most women 
experience it even more painfully: with shame. Aging is a 
man’s destiny, something that must happen because he is a 
human being. For a woman, aging is not only her destiny. 
Because she is that more narrowly defined kind of human 
being, a woman, it is alSo her vulnerability. 


To be a woman is to be an actress. Being feminine is a kind 
of theater, with its appropriate costumes, decor, lighting, 


and stylized gestures. From early childhood on, girls are 
trained to care in a pathologically exaggerated way about 
their appearance and are profoundly mutilated (to the 
extent of being unfitted for first-class adulthood) by the 
extent of the stress put on presenting themselves as 
physically attractive objects. Women look in the mirror more 
frequently than men do. It is, virtually, their duty to look at 
themselves—to look often. Indeed, a woman who is not 
narcissistic is considered unfeminine. And a woman who 
spends literally most of her time caring for, and making 
purchases to flatter, her physical appearance is not 
regarded in this society as what she is: a kind of moral idiot. 
She is thought to be quite normal and is envied by other 
women whose time is mostly used up at jobs or caring for 
large families. The display of narcissism goes on all the 
time. It is expected that women will disappear several times 
in an evening—at a restaurant, at a party, during a theater 
intermission, in the course of a social visit —simply to check 
their appearance, to see that nothing has gone wrong with 
their make-up and hairstyling, to make sure that their 
clothes are not spotted or too wrinkled or not hanging 
properly. It is even acceptable to perform this activity in 
public. At the table in a restaurant, over coffee, a woman 
opens a compact mirror and touches up her make-up and 
hair without embarrassment in front of her husband or her 
friends. 


All this behavior, which is written off as normal “vanity’ in 
women, would seem ludicrous in a man. Women are more 
vain than men because of the relentless pressure on women 
to maintain their appearance at a certain high standard. 
What makes the pressure even more burdensome is that 
there are actually several standards. Men_ present 
themselves as face-and-body, a physical whole. Women are 
split, as men are not, into a body and a face—each judged 
by somewhat different standards. What is important for a 


face is that it be beautiful. What is important for a body is 
two things, which may even be (depending on fashion and 
taste) somewhat incompatible: first, that it be desirable and, 
second, that it be beautiful. Men usually feel sexually 
attracted to women much more because of their bodies 
than their faces. The traits that arouse desire—such as 
fleshiness—don’t always match those that fashion decrees 
as beautiful. (For instance, the ideal woman's’ body 
promoted in advertising in recent years is extremely thin: 
the kind of body that looks more desirable clothed than 
naked.) But women’s concern with their appearance is not 
simply geared to arousing desire in men. It also aims at 
fabricating a certain image by which, as a more indirect way 
of arousing desire, women state their value. A woman’s 
value lies in the way she represents herself, which is much 
more by her face than her body. In defiance of the laws of 
Simple sexual attraction, women do not devote most of their 
attention to their bodies. The well-known “normal” 
narcissism that women display—the amount of time they 
spend before the mirror—is used primarily in caring for the 
face and hair. 


Women do not simply have faces, as men do; they are 
identified with their faces. Men have a naturalistic relation 
to their faces. Certainly they care whether they are good- 
looking or not. They suffer over acne, protruding ears, tiny 
eyes; they hate getting bald. But there is a much wider 
latitude in what is esthetically acceptable in a man’s face 
than what is in a woman’s. A man’s face is defined as 
something he basically doesn’t need to tamper with; all he 
has to do is keep it clean. He can avail himself of the options 
for ornament supplied by nature: a beard, a mustache, 
longer or shorter hair. But he is not supposed to disguise 
himself. What he is “really” like is supposed to show. A man 
lives through his face; it records the progressive stages of 
his life. And since he doesn’t tamper with his face, it is not 


separate from but is completed by his body—which is 
judged attractive by the impression it gives of virility and 
energy. By contrast, a woman’s face is potentially separate 
from her body. She does not treat it naturalistically. A 
woman's face is the canvas upon which she paints a 
revised, corrected portrait of herself. One of the rules of this 
creation is that the face not show what she doesn’t want it 
to show. Her face is an emblem, an icon, a flag. How she 
arranges her hair, the type of make-up she uses, the quality 
of her complexion—all these are signs, not of what she is 
“really” like, but of how she asks to be treated by others, 
especially men. They establish her status as an “object.” 


For the normal changes that age inscribes on every human 
face, women are much more heavily penalized than men. 
Even in early adolescence, girls are cautioned to protect 
their faces against wear and tear. Mothers tell their 
daughters (but never their sons): You look ugly when you 
cry. Stop worrying. Don’t read too much. Crying, frowning, 
squinting, even laughing— all these human activities make 
“lines.” The same usage of the face in men is judged quite 
positively. In a man’s face lines are taken to be signs of 
“character.” They indicate emotional strength, maturity— 
qualities far more esteemed in men than in women. (They 
show he has “lived.”) Even scars are often not felt to be 
unattractive; they too can add “character” to a man’s face. 
But lines of aging, any scar, even a small birthmark on a 
woman’s face, are always regarded as_ unfortunate 
blemishes. In effect, people take character in men to be 
different from what constitutes character in women. A 
woman’s character is thought to be innate, static—not the 
product of her experience, her years, her actions. A 
woman’s face is prized so far as it remains unchanged by 
(or conceals the traces of) her emotions, her physical risk- 
taking. Ideally, it is supposed to be a mask—immutable, 
unmarked. The model woman’s face is Garbo’s. Because 


women are identified with their faces much more than men 
are, and the ideal woman’s face is one that is “perfect,” it 
seems a calamity when a woman has a disfiguring accident. 
A broken nose or a scar or a bum mark, no more than 
regrettable for a man, is a terrible psychological wound to a 
woman; objectively, it diminishes her value. (As is well 
known, most clients for plastic surgery are women.) 


Both sexes aspire to a physical ideal, but what is expected 
of boys and what is expected of girls involves a very 
different moral relation to the self. Boys are encouraged to 
develop their bodies, to regard the body as an instrument to 
be improved. They invent their masculine selves largely 
through exercise and sport, which harden the body and 
strengthen competitive feelings; clothes are of only 
secondary help in making their bodies attractive. Girls are 
not particularly encouraged to develop their bodies through 
any activity, strenuous or not; and physical strength and 
endurance are hardly valued at all. The invention of the 
feminine self proceeds mainly through clothes and other 
signs that testify to the very effort of girls to look attractive, 
to their commitment to please. When boys become men, 
they may go on (especially if they have sedentary jobs) 
practicing a sport or doing exercises for a while. Mostly they 
leave their appearance alone, having been trained to accept 
more or less what nature has handed out to them. (Men 
may start doing exercises again in their forties to lose 
weight, but for reasons of health—there is an epidemic fear 
of heart attacks among the middle-aged in rich countries— 
not for cosmetic reasons.) As one of the norms of 
“femininity” in this society is being preoccupied with one’s 
physical appearance, so “masculinity” means not caring 
very much about one’s looks. 


This society allows men to have a much more affirmative 
relation to their bodies than women have. Men are more “at 


home” in their bodies, whether they treat them casually or 
use them aggressively. A man’s body is defined as a strong 
body. It contains no contradiction between what is felt to be 
attractive and what is practical. A woman's body, so far as it 
is considered attractive, is defined as a fragile, light body. 
(Thus, women worry more than men do about being 
overweight.) When they do exercises, women avoid the 
ones that develop the muscles, particularly those in the 
upper arms. Being “feminine” means looking physically 
weak, frail. Thus, the ideal woman’s body is one that is not 
of much practical use in the hard work of this world, and one 
that must continually be “defended.” Women do not 
develop their bodies, as men do. After a woman’s body has 
reached its sexually acceptable form by late adolescence, 
most further development is viewed as negative. And it is 
thought irresponsible for women to do what is normal for 
men: simply leave their appearance alone. During early 
youth they are likely to come as close as they ever will to 
the ideal image— slim figure, smooth firm = skin, light 
musculature, graceful movements. Their task is to try to 
maintain that image, unchanged, as long as _ possible. 
Improvement as such is not the task. Women care for their 
bodies—against toughening, coarsening, getting fat. They 
conserve them. (Perhaps the fact that women in modem 
societies tend to have a more conservative political outlook 
than men originates in their profoundly conservative 
relation to their bodies.) 


In the life of women in this society the period of pride, of 
natural honesty, of unself-conscious flourishing is brief. Once 
past youth women are condemned to inventing (and 
maintaining) themselves against the inroads of age. Most of 
the physical qualities regarded as attractive in women 
deteriorate much earlier in life than those defined as 
“male.” Indeed, they perish fairly soon in the normal 
sequence of body transformation. The “feminine” is smooth, 


rounded, hairless, unlined, soft, unmuscled—the look of the 
very young; characteristics of the weak, of the vulnerable; 
eunuch traits, as Germaine Greer has pointed out. Actually, 
there are only a few years—late adolescence, early twenties 
—in which this look is physiologically natural, in which it can 
be had without touching-up and covering-up. After that, 
women enlist in a quixotic enterprise, trying to close the gap 
between the imagery put forth by society (concerning what 
is attractive in a woman) and the evolving facts of nature. 


Women have a more intimate relation to aging than men do, 
simply because one of the accepted “women’s” occupations 
is taking pains to keep one’s face and body from showing 
the signs of growing older. Women’s sexual validity 
depends, up to a certain point, on how well they stand off 
these natural changes. After late adolescence women 
become the caretakers of their bodies and faces, pursuing 
an essentially defensive strategy, a holding operation. A 
vast array of products in jars and tubes, a branch of surgery, 
and armies of hairdressers, masseuses, diet counselors, and 
other professionals exist to stave off, or mask, 
developments that are entirely normal biologically. Large 
amounts of women’s energies are diverted into this 
passionate, corrupting effort to defeat nature: to maintain 
an ideal, static appearance against the progress of age. The 
collapse of the project is only a matter of time. Inevitably, a 
woman’s physical appearance develops beyond its youthful 
form. No matter how exotic the creams or how strict the 
diets, one cannot indefinitely keep the face unlined, the 
waist slim. Bearing children takes its toll: the torso becomes 
thicker; the skin is stretched. There is no way to keep 
certain lines from appearing, in one’s mid-twenties, around 
the eyes and mouth. From about thirty on, the skin 
gradually loses its tonus. In women this perfectly natural 
process is regarded as a humiliating defeat, while nobody 
finds anything remarkably unattractive in the equivalent 


physical changes in men. Men are “allowed” to look older 
without sexual penalty. 


Thus, the reason that women experience aging with more 
pain than men is not simply that they care more than men 
about how they look. Men also care about their looks and 
want to be attractive, but since the business of men is 
mainly being and doing, rather than appearing, the 
Standards for appearance are much less exacting. The 
standards for what is attractive in a man are permissive; 
they conform to what is possible or “natural” tO’ most men 
throughout most of their lives. The standards for women’s 
appearance go against nature, and to come anywhere near 
approximating them takes considerable effort and time. 
Women must try to be beautiful. At the least, they are under 
heavy social pressure not to be ugly. A woman’s fortunes 
depend, far more than a man’s, on being at least 
“acceptable” looking. Men are not subject to this pressure. 
Good looks in a man is a bonus, not a_ psychological 
necessity for maintaining normal self-esteem. 


Behind the fact that women are more severely penalized 
than men are for aging is the fact that people, in this culture 
at least, are simply less tolerant of ugliness in women than 
in men. An ugly woman is never merely repulsive. Ugliness 
in a woman is felt by everyone, men as well as women, to 
be faintly embarrassing. And many features or blemishes 
that count as ugly in a woman’s face would be quite 
tolerable on the face of a man. This is not, | would insist, 
just because the esthetic standards for men and women are 
different. It is rather because the esthetic standards for 
women are much higher, and narrower, than those proposed 
for men. 


Beauty, women’s business in this society, is the theater of 
their enslavement. Only one standard of female beauty is 


sanctioned: the girl. The great advantage men have is that 
our culture unlike that of an old man, is always understood 
as a body that can no longer be shown, offered, unveiled. At 
best, it may appear in costume. People still feel uneasy, 
thinking about what they might see if her mask dropped, if 
she took off her clothes. 


Thus, the point for women of dressing up, applying make- 
up, dyeing their hair, going on crash diets, and getting face- 
lifts is not just to be attractive. They are ways of defending 
themselves against a profound level of disapproval directed 
toward women, a disapproval that can take the form of 
aversion. The double standard about aging converts the life 
of women into an inexorable march toward a condition in 
which they are not just unattractive, but disgusting. The 
profoundest terror of a woman's life is the moment 
represented in a statue by Rodin called Old Age: a. naked 
old woman, seated, pathetically contemplates her flat, 
pendulous, ruined body. Aging in women is a process of 
becoming obscene sexually, for the flabby bosom, wrinkled 
neck, spotted hands, thinning white hair, waistless torso, 
and veined legs of an old woman are felt to be obscene. In 
our direst moments of the imagination, this transformation 
can take place with dismaying speed—as in the end of Lost 
Horizon, when the beautiful young girl is carried by her lover 
out of Shangri-La and, within minutes, turns into a withered, 
repulsive crone. There is no equivalent nightmare about 
men. This is why, however much a man may care about his 
appearance, that caring can never acquire the same 
desperateness it often does for women. When men dress 
according to fashion or now even use cosmetics, they do not 
expect from clothes and make-up what women do. A face- 
lotion or perfume or deodorant or hairspray, used by a man, 
is not part of a disguise. Men, as men, do not feel the need 
to disguise themselves to fend off morally disapproved signs 
of aging, to outwit premature sexual obsolescence, to cover 


up aging as obscenity. Men are not subject to the barely 
concealed revulsion expressed in this culture against the 
female body—except in its smooth, youthful, firm, odorless, 
blemish-free form. 


One of the attitudes that punish women most severely is the 
visceral horror felt at aging female flesh. It reveals a radical 
fear of women installed deep in this culture, a demonology 
of women that has crystallized in such mythic caricatures as 
the vixen, the virago, the vamp, and the witch. Several 
centuries of witch-phobia, during which one of the crudest 
extermination programs in Western history was carried out, 
Suggest something of the extremity of this fear. That old 
women are repulsive is one of the most profound esthetic 
and erotic feelings in our culture. Women .share it as much 
as men do. (Oppressors, as a rule, deny oppressed people 
their own “native” standards of beauty. And the oppressed 
end up being convinced that they are ugly.) How women are 
psychologically damaged by this misogynistic idea of what 
is beautiful parallels the way in which blacks have been 
deformed in a society that has up to now defined beautiful 
as white. Psychological tests made on young black children 
in the United States some years ago showed how early and 
how thoroughly they incorporate the white standard of good 
looks. Virtually all the children expressed fantasies that 
indicated they considered black people to be ugly, funny 
looking, dirty, brutish. A similar kind of self-hatred infects 
most women. Like men, they find old age in women “uglier” 
than old age in men. 


This esthetic taboo functions, in sexual attitudes, as a racial 
taboo. In this society most people feel an involuntary recoil 
of the flesh when imagining a middle-aged woman making 
love with a young man—exactly as many whites flinch 
viscerally at the thought of a white woman in bed with a 
black man. The banal drama of a man of fifty who leaves a 


wife of forty-five for a girlfriend of twenty-eight contains no 
strictly sexual outrage, whatever sympathy people may 
have for the abandoned wife. On the contrary. Everyone 
“understands.” Everyone knows that men like girls, that 
young women often want middle-aged men. But no one 
“understands” the reverse situation. A woman of forty-five 
who leaves a husband of fifty for a lover of twenty-eight is 
the makings of a social and sexual scandal at a deep level of 
feeling. No one takes exception to a romantic couple in 
which the man is twenty years or more the woman’s senior. 
The movies pair Joanne Dru and John Wayne, Marilyn 
Monroe and Joseph Gotten, Audrey Hepburn and Gary Grant, 
Jane Fonda and Yves Montand, Catherine Deneuve and 
Marcello Mastroianni; as in actual life, these are perfectly 
plausible, appealing couples. When the age difference runs 
the other way, people are puzzled and embarrassed and 
simply shocked. (Remember Joan Grawford and _ Cliff 
Robertson in Autinun Leaves? But so troubling is this kind of 
love story that it rarely figures in the movies, and then only 
as the melancholy history of a failure.) The usual view of 
why a woman of forty and a boy of twenty, or a women of 
fifty and a man of thirty, marry is that the man is seeking a 
mother, not a wife; no one believes the marriage will last. 
For a woman to respond erotically and romantically to a 
man who, in terms of his age, could be her father is 
considered normal. A man who falls in love with a woman 
who, however attractive she may be, is old enough to be his 
mother is thought to be extremely neurotic (victim of an 
“Oedipal fixation” is the fashionable tag), if not mildly 
contemptible. 


The wider the gap in age between partners in a couple, the 
more obvious is the prejudice against women. When old 
men, such as Justice Douglas, Picasso, Strom Thurmond, 
Onassis, Chaplin, and Pablo Casals, take brides thirty, forty, 
fifty years younger than themselves, it strikes people as 


remarkable, perhaps an exaggeration—but still plausible. To 
explain such a match, people enviously attribute some 
special virility and charm to the man. Though he can’t be 
handsome, he is famous; and his fame is understood as 
having boosted his attractiveness to women. People imagine 
that his young wife, respectful of her elderly husband’s 
attainments, is happy to become his helper. For the man a 
late marriage is always good public relations. It adds to the 
impression that, despite his advanced age, he is still to be 
reckoned with; it is the sign of a continuing vitality 
presumed to be available as well to his art, business 
activity, or political career. But an elderly woman who 
married a young man would be greeted quite differently. 
She would have broken a fierce taboo, and she would get no 
credit for her courage. Far from being admired for her 
vitality, she would probably be condemned as predatory, 
willful, selfish, exhibitionistic. At the same time she would 
be pitied, since such a marriage would be taken as evidence 
that she was in her dotage. If she had a conventional career 
or were in business or held public office, she would quickly 
suffer from the current of disapproval. Her very credibility as 
a professional would decline, since people would suspect 
that her young husband might have an undue influence on 
her. Her “respectability” would certainly be compromised. 
Indeed, the well-known old women | can think of who dared 
such unions, if only at the end of their lives—George Eliot, 
Colette, Edith Piaf —have all belonged to that category of 
people, creative artists and entertainers, who have special 
license from society to behave scandalously. It is thought to 
be a scandal for a woman to ignore that she is old and 
therefore too ugly for a young man. Her looks and a certain 
physical condition determine a woman’s desirability, not her 
talents or her needs. Women are not supposed to be 
“potent.” A marriage between an old woman and a young 
man subverts the very ground rule of relations between the 
two sexes, that is: whatever the variety of appearances, 


men remain dominant. Their claims come first. Women are 
supposed to be the associates and companions of men, not 
their full equals—and never their superiors. Women are to 
remain in the state of a permanent “minority.” 


The convention that wives should be younger than their 
husbands powerfully enforces the “minority” status of 
women, since being senior in age always carries with it, in 
any relationship, a certain amount of power and authority. 
There are no laws on the matter, of course. The convention 
is obeyed because to do otherwise makes one feel as if one 
is doing something ugly or in bad taste. Everyone feels 
intuitively the esthetic rightness of a marriage in which the 
man is older than the woman, which means that any 
marriage in which the woman is older creates a dubious or 
less gratifying mental picture. Everyone is addicted to the 
visual pleasure that women give by meeting certain esthetic 
requirements from which men are exempted, which keeps 
women working at staying youthful-looking while men are 
left free to age. On a deeper level everyone finds the signs 
of old age in women esthetically offensive, which conditions 
one to feel automatically repelled by the prospect of an 
elderly woman marrying a much younger man. The situation 
in which women are kept minors for life is largely organized 
by such conformist, unreflective preferences. But taste is 
not free, and its judgments are never merely “natural.” 
Rules of taste enforce structures of power. The revulsion 
against aging in women is the cutting edge of a whole set of 
oppressive structures (often masked as gallantries) that 
keep women in their place. 


The ideal state proposed for women is docility, which means 
not being fully grown up. Most of what is cherished as 
typically “feminine” is simply behavior that is childish, 
immature, weak. To offer so low and demeaning a standard 
of fulfillment in itself constitutes oppression in an acute form 


—a sort of moral neo-colonialism. But women are not simply 
condescended to by the values that secure the dominance 
of men. They are repudiated. Perhaps because of having 
been their oppressors for so long, few men really like 
women (though they love individual women), and few men 
ever feel really comfortable or at ease in women’s company. 
This malaise arises because relations between the two 
sexes are rife with hypocrisy, as men manage to love those 
they dominate and therefore don’t respect. Oppressors 
always try to justify their privileges and brutalities by 
imagining that those they oppress belong to a lower order of 
civilization or are less than fully “human.” Deprived of part 
of their ordinary human dignity, the oppressed take on 
certain “demonic” traits. The oppressions of large groups 
have to be anchored deep in the psyche, continually 
renewed by partly unconscious fears and taboos, by a sense 
of the obscene. Thus, women arouse not about their age. 
Given society’s double standard, to question a woman about 
her age is indeed often an aggressive act, a trap. Lying is an 
elementary means of self-defense, a way of scrambling out 
of the trap, at least temporarily. To expect a woman, after “a 
certain age,” to tell exactly how old she is— when she has a 
chance, either through the generosity of nature or the 
cleverness of art, to pass for being somewhat younger than 
She actually is—is like expecting a landowner to admit that 
the estate he has put up for sale is actually worth less than 
the buyer is prepared to pay. The double standard about 
aging sets women up as property, as objects whose value 
depreciates rapidly with the march of the calendar. 


The prejudices that mount against women as they grow 
older are an important arm of male privilege. It is the 
present unequal distribution of adult roles between the two 
sexes that gives men a freedom to age denied to women. 
Men actively administer the double standard about aging 
because the “masculine” role awards them the initiative in 


courtship. Men choose; women are chosen. So men choose 
younger women. But although this system of inequality is 
operated by men, it could not work if women themselves did 
not acquiesce in it. Women reinforce it powerfully with their 
complacency, with their anguish, with their lies. 


Not only do women lie more than men do about their age 
but men forgive them for it, thereby confirming their own 
superiority. A man who lies about his age is thought to be 
weak, “unmanly.” A woman who lies about her age is 
behaving in a quite acceptable, “feminine” way. Petty lying 
is viewed by men with indulgence, one of a number of 
patronizing allowances made for women. It has the same 
moral unimportance as the fact that women are often late 
for appointments. Women are not expected to be truthful, or 
punctual, or expert in handling and repairing machines, or 
frugal, or physically brave. They are expected to be second- 
class adults, whose natural state is that of a grateful 
dependence on men. And so they often are, since that is 
what they are brought up to be. So far as women heed the 
stereotypes of “feminine” behavior, they cannot behave as 
fully responsible, independent adults. 


Most women share the contempt for women expressed in 
the double standard about aging—to such a degree that 
they take their lack of self-respect for granted. Women have 
been accustomed so long to the protection of their masks, 
their smiles, their endearing lies. Without this protection, 
they know, they would be more vulnerable. But in protecting 
themselves as women, they betray themselves as adults. 
The model corruption in a woman’s life is denying her age. 
She symbolically accedes to all those myths that furnish 
women with their imprisoning securities and privileges, that 
create their genuine oppression, that inspire their real 
discontent. Each time a woman lies about her age she 


becomes an accomplice in her own underdevelopment as a 
human being. 


Women have another option. They can aspire to be wise, not 
merely nice; to be competent, not merely helpful; to be 
strong, not merely graceful; to be ambitious for themselves, 
not merely for themselves in relation to men and children. 
They can let themselves age naturally and without 
embarrassment, actively protesting and disobeying the 
conventions that stem from this society’s double standard 
about aging. Instead of being girls, girls as long as possible, 
who then age humiliatingly into middle-aged women and 
then obscenely into old women, they can become women 
much earlier—and remain active adults, enjoying the long, 
erotic career of which women are capable, far longer. 
Women should allow their faces to show the lives they have 
lived. Women should tell the truth.